Research for undergraduates

Hints to undergraduates for writing a strong email to faculty about research positions                                                                                                    February 4, 2019

*Note that although this is written for undergraduates at Berkeley, it should be applicable to those in any other institution where research opportunities exist*

There is nothing better than engaging in research as an undergraduate if you are considering a career in science. The earlier you start, the better. Research can be boring and exhausting, and not everyone enjoys the process. The sooner you discover if this is something you want to engage in further, the more opportunity there is for meaningful engagement during your Berkeley undergraduate career (e.g. honors projects, independent research, conference presentations, and publications). The first (and often most daunting) step in starting your research trajectory, is identifying and joining a lab.

Berkeley has an incredible breadth of research groups, and it will take some time to determine which one(s) you’d be most excited about joining. If you are unsure about this, there are many opportunities for you to apply more broadly to particular research programs (such as URAP, Biology Scholars, REU opportunities and so forth). If, however, you are ready to start research and have a good idea of the type of work you might want to do, there is never a wrong time to reach out to faculty members. If you do this, the email you write is often key to success. Below, I outline the type of information you should include in your email, and I strongly suggest you have other people read your email first to offer feedback. After all, you can only make a first impression once.

In your first email to faculty, the key to success is to make it clear you are:

  • specifically interested in this particular lab/line of research;
  • prepared to dedicate a significant amount of time to your research, both in terms of weekly commitment and in longer terms (i.e. future semesters and/or summer work); and
  • bringing something to the table in terms of your own skillset and/or interests.

For many/most faculty, a strong reason and motivation for doing research is much more important than previously developed skills/techniques or GPA, so before writing your email: think broadly about why you want to engage in research (are you considering a research career? Have you always wanted to help solve big societal problems? Are you hoping to attend medical school but want to make sure you understand the scientific process so you can remain up to date in current research?) and what qualities you possess that will make you a great addition to a research team (are you organized, analytical, a quick learner? What traits have allowed you to succeed thus far in other jobs/positions?)

The next step is identifying a few potential faculty mentors/labs. There is no right way to do this, but some possibilities include: asking friends who they’ve enjoyed working with, thinking about professors you’ve interacted with in the classroom, asking faculty with whom you already interact to suggest research groups in area ______, searching through the faculty webpages on the departmental site, and reading scientific papers from groups you are considering joining. Most faculty webpages are full of useful information about the type of work they are doing and what motivates that work.

Once you have identified faculty with whom you might like to work (make sure you have spent time on their webpages!), it’s time to start your email. If you have met/engaged with the faculty or someone from their lab previously, it’s helpful to start the email with that information so they have some context. But note, this is not necessary! The structure of the email should generally be as follows:

Paragraph 1: Who you are. The first paragraph should include information about how far along you are in your studies, what (if any) research experience you have had so far, and why you are writing the email. This can include why you are hoping to engage in research at this time in your undergraduate career, and what your longer term career aspirations are. Note that it is customary at Berkeley to address the email, “Dear Professor ________” unless you know them personally and/or have been told to call them something different.

Paragraph 2: Why you want to join that (specific) lab. As I mention above, faculty webpages are a great resource to understanding the goals/motivation of particular labs – and you need to make it clear that your own interests are in line with those of the group. If you give yourself enough time, it’s a great idea to read some of the recent publications to come out of that group. If you do this, mentioning that you particularly liked paper X, in which they found Y, is a great way of demonstrating that you really thought about the research in that group! The key message from this paragraph should be that you understand what the lab is doing (in a general sense and/or in term of one or two specific projects) and that you want to join that research effort. Your motivation for doing so can be personal (e.g. I’ve always been interested in X) or professional (e.g. I am hoping to further develop my skills in Y), but it is helpful for the faculty to understand why you think their lab would be a good place for you. Again, anything you can do to make clear your email is not a generic email to many professors, but rather a targeted and well thought-out request, will go a long way.

Paragraph 3: What you are looking for in this position. This is where you want to make clear what type of position you are looking for (work-study, volunteer, for credit, etc…) and how many hours (approximately) you would be willing to commit. It is also a good place to mention your longer-term plans for continued engagement. If you are a Sophomore looking for somewhere to work for the next two years and are keen to consider an honor’s thesis, this is the time to say so. It is also sometimes a good idea to state that you are flexible in terms of hours/projects/type of research (but in this case, giving some indication of your preferences is helpful). This paragraph can be short, and can also include a request that if the lab is full but the professor has any ideas for groups doing similar research, you would appreciate the suggestions. This can save you some time and might lead you to a group you wouldn’t have otherwise identified.

Attachments: It is always a good idea to include a resume/CV in your email. This can, but does not need to, include your GPA, courses you’ve taken, and other work experience. There are excellent examples on line, and the Berkeley Career Center ( is a great resource to help you craft a strong resume.

Following up: It is important to realize (and prepare yourself for the possibility) that you might not receive a response to your inquiry. Many faculty are busy, and might not have time to tell you that their lab is currently full. However, it might also be the case that your email simply fell off their radar or arrived at an inconvenient time. My advice is to follow up a week later with a polite email, forwarding the original email and stating that you were writing again in the event that your previous email arrived at an inconvenient time (or something to that effect). There is also nothing wrong with sending a third email a week or so later, especially if it is polite. I would suggest stating that you realize they might not have positions open in their lab, and thus you will not bother them again but would appreciate their keeping your application on file in the event that something opens up in the future. Remember that perseverance is a positive trait in research, so reaching out again can often indicate that you are serious about this position.

If you do receive a reply, follow the lead of the professor writing. They might put you in touch with a postdoctoral researcher or graduate student, ask you to come in for an interview, or ask you to go down a more formal route (such as applying to URAP). In the latter case, you should mention your previous correspondence in your future application. They might also say their group is full, in which case it’s always a good idea to ask them to keep you informed of future openings and/or to ask them if there are any other labs doing similar work.

Finally, remember that writing this first email takes a lot of time and can seem daunting, but as you apply to further labs (in the event that the first one is full), you can easily refine your first email to fit new opportunities. Writing these emails, like all things, takes practice and you will get better at this the more time you spend practicing. Good luck, and I wish you great success in your future research endeavors!

To share or not to share

I love blogging, and twitter, and emailing, and even the occasional Facebook check. I’ve always accepted that much of my life is open to the public, and I think hard before I tweet or post about anything too personal. I try to keep my public-facing persona professional and science-focused most of the time (with the occasional whinge about work-life balance or expression of delight regarding the rare Cornish sun) and actually even enjoy managing my online profile*. That is why this particular dilemma has caught me off guard.

I recently (i.e. six weeks ago) had a baby. A perfect, all-consuming bundle of delight. This did not come as a surprise. In fact, I had over nine months to prepare for this particular wrench in the works. I submitted all of the manuscripts I’d been working on – except one; sorry coauthors! – and finished painting rooms in the house and putting up wallpaper. I tried to get ahead as much as I could, preparing for this great conference I am co-organizing on emerging plant pests and pathogens (see you there?), wrapping up experiments, and helping my group so they could get along without me for a few weeks**. I felt more than ready when she came along 12 days late.

The one thing I hadn’t prepared myself for was the decision regarding whether or not I was going to make her presence part of my public-facing persona. Suddenly even Facebook, which I restrict to only friends and family, felt too public to reveal anything about this new aspect of my life. I really enjoy online discussion of women in science issues and the difficulties in balancing work and family life, but suddenly felt uncomfortable with the idea that the discussion would be specifically about me and my experiences.

And then there was the decision about the auto-reply on my emails. I am running really far behind on emails. I mean really far – 4+ weeks behind in some important cases***. I knew this would happen to some extent, but I wasn’t prepared to employ an auto-reply in part because I generally hate them (I’m so happy for you that you are off gallivanting in Timbuktu, thanks for sharing) but more importantly because I didn’t like the idea of everyone who wrote to me knowing that I was away on maternity leave. This just felt too private to share. And surely I would be able to get back to most people within a reasonable enough timeframe, right? (Answer: wrong)

Now that I’ve had a few weeks to equilibrate and think about how to move forward (and now that I am getting much much better at typing with one hand) I’ve decided it’s time to begin sharing. I still will not add an auto-reply to my email and I will probably not post pictures of the F1 any time soon, if at all. But I am finally ready, and indeed excited, to become part of the #maternityleavescience crew. So far I am happy to say that my productivity has dropped – but not perished. The work I am able to do, I am finding that I can do with more focus and even with renewed insight (baby brain, schmaybe brain). I am thoroughly enjoying bearing witness to the amazing role of basic human instinct and to watching a new human being discover the world. I am also enjoying the challenge of rebalancing my life and reprioritizing what I need to do (NSF full proposal, here I come!) And I also look forward to sharing this new adventure – but not too much.

*Probably not something I should admit – nearly as bad as admitting you like to stare at yourself in the mirror. Honestly, I don’t.

**Turns out they do this very well. Almost too well. #askingforafriend

***If you haven’t heard from me, please accept my sincere apologies!

On working in Sierra Leone (Guest post by Sean Meaden)

The post below is written by Sean Meaden (a PhD student in the lab working on bacteria-phage interactions in plants) about his recent experience in Sierra Leone volunteering with Public Health England at an Ebola clinic: treatment_centre No hand-shakes, no kisses, no contact: there’s never been a better time to be a socially awkward Brit than in the middle of an Ebola outbreak. Despite life in West Africa being far from normal right now, with deciding on the best no-touch greeting the least of it, new cases of Ebola seem to be falling. This is due in no small part to the coordinated efforts of governments, NGOs and committed healthcare workers. This is a post about a deployment I volunteered for to work in a diagnostic lab run by Public Health England in Port Loko, Sierra Leone. On the 20th of November I applied to travel to Sierra Leone and work in an Ebola diagnostic lab at a recently built treatment centre by the Irish charity GOAL. How does a 26 year old PhD student from Devon end up in a Danish-military run camp in rural West Africa? Despite my high-risk, and at times perilous research on tomato plants, I am perhaps not the most obvious choice for such work. However, a week’s intensive training at Porton Down, the UK’s leading biosafety laboratory, and the support of very capable and experienced colleagues meant I was equipped to perform diagnostic tests on Ebola samples. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA My day job as a PhD student at the University of Exeter is researching the microbes that cause plant diseases. And whilst the setting is somewhat different, the underlying biology and genetic techniques are all very similar. The chance to take these skills, garnered from an education at UK institutions, to those less fortunate in a country with a literacy rate of 43%, seemed like a unique opportunity. The aim of DFID (Dpt. For International Development) and PHE is to contain the outbreak to the locations in which it already has a stranglehold, thus helping those countries heavily affected and preventing the disease from spreading back to the UK. In my 5 week deployment I, along with a team of 10 other scientists, performed over a thousand tests on samples from suspected cases at the treatment centre where I was based and the many more that arrived by motorcycle courier from across the region. motley_crew The work itself was pretty straightforward, which is a testament to the guys at PHE who design the protocols for the tests. Essentially, you have to safely get the sample into an isolator, which is a big soft plastic box with gloves attached that puts an extra barrier between you and the virus. Once you’ve ‘killed’ the virus you can start working with its genes. It’s still the source of some debate in a couple of ivory towers about whether a virus is truly alive or not: call me old-fashioned but I think if it can replicate, and it’s replication can kill you, I want to call it dead when it stops working. Once it’s dead we can run tests that look for the genes of the virus in the sample, then measures the fluorescence given off by the reaction (qPCR). If it all sounds a bit tech, it is- Douglas Adams’ line “we are stuck with technology when what we really want is just stuff that works” has never been more apt. The reality is that Ebola is tricky to study and not normally a big problem, with outbreaks averaging around 200 deaths, rather than the nearly 10,000 deaths in the current West African outbreak. As such, there’s never been a huge need for a rapid test. Fortunately a new vaccine trial and rapid blood tests will change things in the wake of this outbreak and I hope our line of work will be redundant soon. lab To some extent our stress levels were dictated by the ebb and flow of samples arriving. On some of the quieter mornings we were fighting for menial jobs and some artistic creativity was employed decorating the lab gowns of those not present. Life in the camp was occasionally spiced up with a celebrity visit. The Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt flew out for a visit, taking time to don the protective clothing worn by doctors, nurses and hygienists in treatment centres. As a huge Borgen fan I was somewhat hoping to get a selfie with the real-life Birgitte Nyborg but sadly our political romance was over before it had begun. IMAG5614 (2) Understandably, our contact with the community was minimal but my naïve interpretation wasn’t that Port Loko was a ghost town, rather a community trying to get on with everyday life in the midst of the outbreak. The same was true when we visited a beach on a day off at the end of the deployment. A burgeoning tourist industry has been stalled as a result of the outbreak. Still, it was pretty refreshing to chat about surfing with some of the local guys- and fortunately it was flat so the temptation to surf wasn’t even an option. Finally, kudos to the doctors and nurses stationed in our camp. Wearing full PPE (the yellow protective suits required for patient contact) in 35 degree heat and 85% humidity takes some guts. So too does couriering a sample on the back of a motorbike from the community hospitals and holding centres over to the testing laboratories, or swabbing a corpse to allow effective contact tracing. In short, I met some very brave people who worked incredibly hard to treat those affected, and by the looks of the current case statistics their efforts are being rewarded. doffing_area

Photo credit: Katina Kraemer

One-year blogiversary

One year ago I decided that I wanted to have a more flexible research page (in addition to the more static page through my university) and so I joined WordPress. I chose WordPress in part because it was free, had good tutorials, and was well known, and in part because Mick Vos (who had been encouraging me to start a blog for a few months) had set up such a great page for his coastal pathogens institute. Although there are a number of great web hosting sites, I am very happy with my decision and think I’ll stay out for another year!

Sycamore, Alder, Ash and Oak tree leaves stamped onto nutrient agar and incubated for 48 hours.
Sycamore, Alder, Ash and Oak tree leaves stamped onto nutrient agar and incubated for 48 hours.

I knew from the start that my blogging would be sporadic, as term times come with grant deadlines, teaching, big experiments and many manuscripts to write and review; so I decided to simply have a blog tab, rather than allowing it to take center stage. As you can see from the dates of my postings, this was probably a wise decision. That being said, the fondness and joy I feel for my blog tab is not well represented by the frequency of my posting. If I could, I would spend much more time on blog posts, and indeed perhaps as things move forward I will find the time to do so. So today, on my one year anniversary of this site, I thought I would describe how starting this blog has changed my career and life (I know that sounds pretty dramatic, but keep reading).

I don’t know where I fall on the introvert/extrovert scale, but those who know me assume I’m way out towards extrovert and those who know me well are likely to think I’m pretty far out on the introvert end. Either way, I know I love to stand in front of a crowd and discuss my research but I still turn bright red on occasion in staff meetings if I simply speak up to raise a mundane point. I enjoy chatting with colleagues and late nights with friends, but I need space and time to myself (and a lot of it). I love doing research and sharing the results with others, but I am still terrified every time I submit a manuscript that my ideas are silly, my stats are wrong, or I missed a large chunk of the literature despite months of reading, analysing data, and writing. This is something no one told me about when it comes to being a scientist; the fact that you are continually judged, and often harshly, by your peers. For those of us who are plagued by self-doubt anyhow, this really is the hardest part. Being good enough, mainly in our own minds.

That is why I often spend two weeks staring at a blank screen before I finally begin the writing of a manuscript. It is like standing on the edge of a cliff and gaining the courage to jump. Once I start the writing process, things can move very very fast. Sometimes I get so excited that I can barely type fast enough. But it’s the getting started that is the constant bottleneck. That’s true for almost all pieces of writing, e.g. grants, manuscripts, and even important emails, but it’s not true for blog posts. With blog posts, like this one, the mood strikes and I go for it. No pressure, no right or wrong,  just putting my thoughts and ideas down on paper. And the best part is that once I finish a blog post and the creative juices are flowing, I can transition straight into a more serious piece of writing; without the hesitation, without the focus on perfection, I just get on with it. And there you have the first way that this blog has helped me.

The second way has to do with visibility and networking. Once my blog had been created, and my first post written, I knew I needed a better way to engage with other bloggers and readers. My wonderful friend Pip had been encouraging me to get into twitter for years, but despite starting an account a few years back, I had never really seen its worth. At long last, I saw a good use and began expanding my twitter network. Over the last year I have gone from occasional tweeter, to manic live tweeter, to a state of equilibrium where I check twitter in the morning, tweet when I have something fun/useful/interesting to say, and check again before bed. I use twitter to keep up on the recent literature, share new papers and blog posts, and to network. This final point deserves a few more sentences, as this was the unexpected reward. Since joining the list of science tweeps I have gained numerous friends, many of whom I’ve now met and many more of whom I still look forward to meeting. I’ve also made connections with folks at conferences that I would not have met if it weren’t for us both tweeting, and I’ve been able to identify a pool of interesting, caring and very clever followers/people I follow, which make me feel very well-connected and well-supported despite living in the (stunningly beautiful) far reaches of Cornwall.

A colleague recently said to me: I don’t tweet or keep a blog because I don’t imagine that anyone else will be interested in what I have to say. This really caught me off guard; am I full of self-importance? Do I blog/tweet because I think I’m particularly interesting? My response to this comment was flippant: I don’t tweet/blog for others, I do it for myself. I don’t know if that’s entirely true, as I have been known to obsessively check views to my blog, and I love getting comments on posts, but there is certainly a clear element of truth in there. Being highly visible (in theory) in such a non-threatening way has bolstered my confidence immensely and has allowed me to find a voice I didn’t know I had.

This past week I attended the first day of the AURORA workshop in London, a leadership program for women in science. I will post more about that in the next few months, but bring it up now because on the first day we were asked to bring a picture/image/object that represents us. I barely had to give it a thought, and printed out a large copy of my twitter avatar. The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea. The picture represents my science, it represents the importance of social networking in my life, and of course it reminds me of my first post: I am more microbe than me!

So thanks for reading, and for your support. I have about 13 posts in the works (did I mention that I am very good at starting things?!?!) and will be blogging about science things again soon. For now, though, I would just encourage any of you who’ve been toying with the idea of revamping your website, starting a blog, or joining twitter to do so. You may well be surprised at the impact it has on your life, research and productivity (in a good way!)

Choose your conferences wisely

Credit: Jorge Chan,
Credit: Jorge Chan, P.s. Remember to practice! But also not to panic if your talk goes slightly off track.

This year was a mast year of conference-going for me. I hadn’t planned to attend nine conferences (summary of each at the end of the post), but sometimes it is so hard to say no! However, I will not be repeating this schedule in the future, as it has been very hard to keep on top of all the other work I want to/ have to do. So how should I decide on which conferences to attend in the future?

I think the basis for the decision will differ from year to year depending on what I hope to gain, whether I have a new exciting story to present, and whether I am hoping to be inspired and think outside of my usual scientific framework, or hoping to network and build on what I am currently doing. But generally I think meetings break down into three categories:

(A) the large society meetings that feel more like a family reunion than a day at the office;

(B) the specialty meetings where like minds come together and reinforce the momentum of the field, and;

(C) the new topic meetings – either altogether new, or simply new to me – where I spend the entire time brainstorming about what direction I want to move in next and networking is the name of the game.

Each type of meeting has its pros and cons, and I hope to always balance among the three (which means missing the “family reunion” from time to time). Type A acts as a reminder of why I am doing what I do, how much I enjoy my colleagues’ and advisors’ company, and reinforces that I have a terrific support network. These meetings typically have an overwhelming number of talks you could attend (transports me back to the excitement of opening my University course offerings directory each term), are less restrictive in who can give a talk – allowing for early career researchers to present their work, and are highly social. Type B is where I typically gain the most in terms of scientific progress and networking. These meetings often don’t have concurrent sessions, which means that everyone has seen the same set of talks as you, and therefore that dinner conversation topics are easy, even with folks you’ve never met before. This also means you are likely to sit through a talk you wouldn’t have chosen from an abstract book, and learn something unexpectedly relevant to your own interests. Type C are also terrific for networking, as they are often very small and targeted, with a particular goal in mind (synthesizing a field, solving a specific problem, or building collaboration). These meetings are probably the most likely to result in the generation of a new project, and can really solidify a community of researchers. So if you see one on a topic you are interested in getting involved in, there is no better way to put your name on the map than attending!

As you can see, there is no easy choice (especially if you are resource- and/or time- limited). One way to make the decision, especially if you are further on in your career, is to only attend the meetings to which you are invited, either as a plenary speaker or within a symposium. However, if you follow that track you may miss new opportunities for networking, as you are unlikely to be invited to a meeting that is outside your area of expertise. My new plan is to choose one meeting that I want to attend, one meeting that I “should” attend (i.e. based on the table below), and then one that I am invited to, unless that fills either of the two previous niches. I’ll let you know how that pans out next season.

A very broad overview of what's to be gained at each type of conference.
A very broad overview of what’s to be gained at each type of conference.

A bit about this year’s conferences:

First I attended a meeting in Eco-Evolutionary dynamics in Leuven, Belgium which was organized by Ellen Decaestecker and Luc De Meester. The meeting was primarily designed as a networking event for Belgian researchers, but I think all of us invited speakers found it just as useful for networking! The best thing about this meeting was that although it was specific in terms of question being addressed, it was incredibly broad in terms of systems and approaches being used. It was also a great group, with the bulk of the audience representing PhD students. The questions after each talk were very insightful, and it was a warm open atmosphere. The research highlights were hearing about hell breaking loose in three species lab experiments from Nelson Hairston, data presented by Lutz Becks showing increased sexual reproduction with ecological feedbacks, experimental work by Eva Lundstrom indicating that the abiotic environment can select for particular bacterial communities even in the face of 70% dispersal, and a fabulous talk by Jacintha Ellers about trait loss in obligate parasites.

Next I went to the Second International Microbotryum meeting in Amherst, Massachusetts. The meeting was organized by Michael Hood, and focused primarily on using the Silene-Microbotryum system as a model for understanding disease ecology and evolution. However, since many of us have changed paths since studying that system, it included talks from across many plant disease systems. Due to the size of the meeting, everyone presented their work, including some terrific undergraduate students, which meant that we all really gelled and could have great/productive conversation. I had never met Pete Thrall, Tatiana Giraud (although we’ve written a paper together) or Georgiana May, and really enjoyed getting to know each of them. It was an ideal size for a meeting of this sort (20ish), and is even leading to a new publication. Among the highlights and new things I learned were: Emme Bruns explained the use of Aster models for life history (I am definitely going to use these!), Janis Antonovics showed both theory and data on disease spread at the edge of host ranges, Scott McArt taught me about mummy berry disease (very cool!), Britta Buker shared a really great way to identify genes important in host specificity by backcrossing hybridized parasites, Martin Kemler described successful Microbotryum infection of non-host species but no onwards transmission, and Mandy Gibson showed great support for the idea that sexual reproduction is higher in parasitic than free living species of nematodes.

The month of May was a great one for folks studying the evolution and/or ecology of infectious diseases. First, we got to attend a one-day symposium in London organized by Mike Boots on the Evolutionary Ecology of Infectious Diseases (as part of the British Ecological Society’s 100th birthday!) Then we flew over to Pennsylvania State University for the 10th annual Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Disease meeting (and Pete Hudson’s 60th birthday celebration). Both meetings were fabulous! And it became increasingly clear that our understanding of when/how/why disease occurs is dramatically improving. For one thing, there are more researchers working on these questions than ever before; but also, there are some exciting new techniques and approaches being applied, both in generating empirical data and in modeling large datasets. It seems to me that the EEID field has long been lead by theoreticians, with very little data that could be used to test the elegant and clear theory being produced. The new datasets being generated and modeled are pushing the field forward and challenging many of the ideas we thought we had figured out. And this is really exciting – new data leads to new theory leads to leaps and bounds in our ability to manage disease.

The research highlights of these two meetings were much too plentiful to put into this post, but I did live tweet both events, and have collated those here: Tweets from EEIDs. The annual EEID meeting is among my favorites on account of its smallish size, great social events, fabulous and diverse talks, and lively discussions at the end of each session. This time around, the moderators of each session were in charge of shaping the timings for discussion and really got things going by asking provocative and insightful questions. For more highlights from the meetings see: and

Next up was Evolution 2013 in Snowbird Utah. Unfortunately, I missed the opening night and first day, and it took me some time to recover from jet lag and altitude once I arrived. Despite these obstacles, however, it was great fun as always. I was lucky enough to be part of the ASN Vice Presidential symposium on Ecology, Evolution and coevolution of host-parasite interactions, organized by Curt Lively. It was a great experience, and a very supportive group to be part of. Topics ranged from the role parasites play in maintaining sexual reproduction (Curt Lively), bacteriophage adaptation over space and time (myself), self-medicating butterflies (Jaap de Roode), parasite-mediated competition (Meghan Duffy), eco-evolutionary feedbacks in immunity (Andrea Graham), to parasite evolution in immune-compromised hosts (Andrew Read). In the next year or so, you’ll be able to read all about the work presented in a special issue of AmNat.

As always, the meeting was jam-packed with sessions. Unfortunately, it was quite difficult to move among rooms with ease, so I tried to stay through whole sessions. In many ways I prefer this to running around madly, but it did mean I missed many talks I wanted to see. This year’s Evolution meeting also had a new twist: Lightning talks. These 5 minute shorts were a great test of whether a researcher really understood what their work was all about. The best ones typically had only one key point being made; some were funny, others were truly lightning paced, but all were good effort! Overall, the meeting was in a great location (although I didn’t have time to fully exploit it) and was a wonderful opportunity to see many many friendly faces. Again, for more coverage see:

After a three-week break it was on to the Gordon Research Conference on Microbial Population Biology in New Hampshire, organized by Paul Turner. This is my second GRC, and I am sure it won’t be my last. The success of the GRC meetings rests on the quality of the talks and posters (which are almost exclusively on unpublished results), the isolated location of the conference (think summer camp), and the fact that it draws the big names from the field (i.e. great networking opportunities!) Given the confidential nature of the talks – no live tweeting allowed – I will only give vague research highlights here. There were two talks about reconstructing ancestral phenotypes, one by Betul Kacar and one by Eric Gaucher, which really got my imagination going, one about megaplasmids in Pseudomonas syringae by Dave Baltrus, a full session on CRISPRs, including a glimpse into how spacer heterogeneity evolves by Rachel Whitaker and a discussion of the non-random acquisition of protospacers by Rudolpho Barrangou, and an amazing illustration of the evolution of resistance to antibiotics in a Guinness Book of World records-sized agar plate by Roy Kishony.

For those planning to attend the GRC for the first time in coming years, one thing to note: although the meeting can seem “cliquish” at first glance, I’ve found that the meal layout with round tables after a buffet choice is perfect for meeting new people. Whatever you do, don’t stand there looking around for the one person you know. Go to the nearest free seat and ask if you can join. In fact, this should go for every meeting you attend, but it is easier said than done at some.

That brings us up to date, with a nice two-week respite before I head off to the European Society for Evolutionary Biology meeting (ESEB 2013) in Lisbon, Portugal, followed by a desperately needed 10 day holiday in Italy, followed by the Society of General Microbiology meeting in Brighton, UK, followed by two talks (one on science and one public lecture on “what evolution can do for you”) at the 2013 EMPSEB (European Meeting of PhD Students in Evolutionary Biology) meeting organized by our very own PhD students here in Cornwall.

As I said, I won’t be repeating this grueling schedule anytime soon. But it’s been great fun so far!

On dealing with rejection

Rejection is hard for everyone to deal with, but for a scientist, it is both hard and a pervasive part of our everyday lives: we have to deal with many many rejections for every success we achieve. This is true for grant applications, publications, positions we are applying for, promotions within our institutions, and various other competitions in which we take part; the answer is usually no (and when I say usually, I mean upwards of 75% for most journals in Ecology and Evolution, upwards of 94% for grant proposals to the National Science Foundation, and 99.5% for candidates applying for a given faculty position).

rejection letter

These odds can sometimes seem insurmountable. And to overcome them, there are many different strategies. For example, in terms of acquiring a grant you might consider applying for every opportunity that you can. This would surely raise your odds of success, right? Unless of course you are in fact trading off real productivity (i.e., the science you want to and were hired to do) for grant writing and gambling against the odds. Alternatively, you might try the reverse strategy– concentrating on being a productive, focused and dedicated scientist who waits until they have a great idea, some preliminary data, and the time to put together a really clear and exciting proposal (the so-called “eggs in one basket” kind of person). Again, this seems like it should raise your odds of success, given that you are competing against others who are scrambling to write as many proposals as they can. However, there is a component of the system that is truly stochastic (one reviewer who takes a strong dislike to your idea or method can easily sink the success of your proposal), and therefore all of that hard work (either quality or quantity) is not a guarantee.

Unfortunately, this is not a piece offering advice on how to succeed at grant writing – although if that’s what you are looking for, there are some really great ones out there (see here, here, and here).  Instead, I’ll discuss strategies for dealing with rejection and I would love to hear your thoughts/suggestions on others. I would suggest going through the following steps, in whatever order you feel is appropriate:

1) Pat yourself on the back (or hug yourself if you’re flexible). After all, you were brave enough to try! And you can’t succeed if you don’t put yourself out there. It can be very scary to craft your ideas into a proposal or paper and send it off to be torn apart by your competitors/colleagues/idols. You did it. Well done!

2) Scream/curse/cry/kick something – ideally something soft and not alive. You have a right to be angry. You put a lot of time and effort into that proposal/paper/application, and you did it out of love for the field, curiosity and in an attempt to contribute (as opposed to money or fame, since there are little of either available as rewards), and it’s hard to see this wasted.

3) Go commiserate with a friend/colleague. After all, every one of your fellow scientists has dealt with a similar blow and it can really help to know you’re not alone. Don’t worry that they will look down on you or lose respect. Everyone knows it’s part of the job, and it’s no fun.

4) Once you’ve calmed down and are ready, buy a nice coffee/tea/beer and reread your reviews. First look at the positive things that were said. Then think about the negatives. Are any of these good points? Points you could address in your next version? If not, is it because you may have thought the point was too obvious to discuss in your work (in which case, you now know better – there are some real numpties out there, and you need to convince them too).

5) Try and try again! And don’t forget to reflect on your past rejections when you finally do get that paper accepted/job offer/grant funded… you got it against the odds! Go celebrate.

6) Last but not least, we are of course on both sides of this playing field. We are authors, but also reviewers. So when you are dealing with rejection, don’t forget to take some mental notes about how you felt receiving the feedback so you can check back over this the next time you are rejecting someone else; constructive criticism and a spoonful of kind words can go a very long way in making the medicine go down.